Is There Purpose in Biology?: The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander,
Chapter 6- Death, Pain, Suffering, and the God of Love
We are reviewing the book: Is There Purpose in Biology? The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander. Today is: Chapter 6- Death, Pain, Suffering, and the God of Love. Alexander is going to try and tackle the theodicy question raised by evolution, to wit:
If we believe in a God of love who is immanent in upholding and sustaining the created order, then how come evolution works the way it does, entailing competition, food-chains, and lives which can end abruptly in the animal’s first few days of life in the mouth of some hungry predator?
Clearly, these are not “evils” in the way we normally use the word since no moral decision-making is entailed. We don’t seek punishment for animals that eat each other, and when a dangerous dog kills a child it is the owner who is held responsible. But I think theologically we are justified in calling certain aspects of the biological world “evil” in the rather specialized sense that they do not belong to the ultimate fulfilled kingdom of God in which God’s reign will be finally vindicated. When Jesus came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, he clearly saw sickness as an evil to be confronted on the grounds that it had no place in God’s fulfilled kingdom, as we will consider further below. So “natural evil” is ultimately “unnatural evil” because it does not belong in the age which is to come, even though it is very much part of our experience now in the present evil age. And even if we do not wish to attach the word “evil” to such characteristics of the created order at all, we can at least all agree they represent facets of creation that we would rather do without.
Denis points out that if, you read the voluminous literature on the topic, you soon find there is a spectrum of opinion from the “hands-off” God who basically lets the world run itself to the “total control” God who determines everything that happens at the other extreme.
On the left end we find philosophers like Hans Jonas who suggests, in Mortality and Morality (Jonas 1996), that God self-empties himself of mind and power in giving creation its existence and then allows the interplay of chance and natural law to take its course. A little further to the right are the process theologians, like James Keller (Keller, J.A., 2013, Process Theism and Theodicies for Problems of Evil) who basically think denying God’s omnipotence a better response to the problems of evil than traditional theism. More toward the middle of the spectrum are the “kenosis”-types like Jack Haught, Keith Ward, and John Polkinghorne (who we reviewed here). Elizabeth Johnson, in her book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, says that just as God bestows free will upon humans, so he also bestows “free-process” upon the natural world. Evolutionary biology is therefore an “unscripted adventure” in which the “natural world” freely participates in its own creation.
Alexander notes three particular problem with the so-called middle ground.
- The material world is not “free” to do anything. Matter does what matter does, it’s not even free in the metaphorical sense intended by these commentators. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle might make the behavior of matter indeterminate from a human perspective, but it does not thereby become free.
- The second problem comes with the word kenosis. It has a defined theological meaning based on its use in Philippians Chapter 2, but it is not the way God’s actions in creation are described. There is no “self-emptying” on God’s part, rather the opposite, there is no “effort” at all as far as Scripture is concerned. God speaks, it’s done, end of story.
- The third problem is that a hands-off God is just as responsible for the unintended consequences of his creation as the totally hands-on God is who determined the created order down to the smallest detail. As Denis says, “If I take my hands off the steering-wheel as my car goes down a hill and it then proceeds to crash into the pavement killing a child, I am just as culpable as if I had killed the child with my hands still firmly on the steering-wheel.”
Denis’s sympathies lie more on the right end of the spectrum. He says:
In the views on the right of the spectrum, there is no room for kenosis in the context of God’s created work, because God is in no sense denying his own nature or emptying himself in the creative process. At the same time, God is not the puppet-master, micromanaging the created order, but the God who operates via secondary causes that have their own causal efficacy. This is a robust Trinitarian theism which takes the problem of natural evil right on the chin, fair and square. There is no ducking the issue. God really is responsible for God’s created order. How could it be otherwise?
One objection to this idea that the created order is contingent upon God’s continuous creative activity is based on the assumption that the creation is there to tell us something about God’s character. But Denis doesn’t agree with that assumption. Based on his reading of the Bible, the passages of scripture only provide a minimalist list; the fact that God exists, and that he’s powerful and full of glory – not other aspects of God’s character. It is the William Paley – Watchmaker God – Natural Theology reading of scripture that leads to, for example, to Darwin’s revulsion to parasites:
But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as other do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. (From Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857)
Denis points out that:
- . There is nothing in the biblical view of creation that suggests God “designs” particular organisms to do nasty things to other organisms.
- . The Bible does not portray God as a “heavenly designer engineer” who goes about designing things.
- . There is no evidence we are to infer God’s character from the behavior of parasites.
- The created order is not there to teach about God’s character; we learn that through revelation.
So what is the overriding good that is generated by a world with these particular properties in which death, pain, and predation are part and parcel? Denis suggests that it is coherent existence itself which is the overriding good, including the existence of living things, and especially the existence of creatures like ourselves with the capacity to respond freely to God’s love. He says the physics and chemistry of carbon-based life are dependent on the physics and chemistry of carbon-based death – it is a package deal. Carbon-based life and carbon-based death are written into the anthropic script of God’s created order right from the beginning. The cost of existence is huge, and we all bear that cost. And by “we”, Denis means every living creature that has ever lived.
If the created order that we observe and investigate all around us is precisely the one God intended to bring into existence, how come Jesus in his incarnation made a central part of his ministry the healing of diseases for which he, within the Trinitarian Godhead, was ultimately responsible? It’s a cop-out to say it’s all a result of human sin, and besides that is not what Jesus taught –
“…who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:2-3)
With the healing ministry of Jesus, the future fulfilled kingdom begins to break in to the present evil age. The door to the future is pushed open and a beautiful healing breeze blows through, giving us a taste of what is still to come.
Carbon-based existence is also wrapped up in the cost of the incarnation. Denis quotes Ernan McMullin from Notre Dame Universtiy:
When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.
Without the physical properties of the universe there would be no life, no evolution, so no free will, no moral responsibility, therefore no sin, no incarnation, and no redemptive work of Christ upon the cross. The path God has chosen for us is a tough one, a boot camp, if you will. But the obvious question is; was it really necessary? Do we have to go through Phase 1 to get to Phase 2?
Denis ends this chapter with a personal story. He gave the Herrmann lecture on which this chapter is based on November 7, 2014, just 11 days after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Later in December he underwent surgery followed up with chemotherapy. All that to say his speculation about life and death, healing and disease, biology and purpose, was no mere academic discussion. He lived it. As he says:
What’s the point of telling you all that? Only, that for the Christian who sees God’s Purposes being worked out in all the nitty-gritty of a long history of biological evolution, it is all part and parcel of the same theology to know that God is working out his purposes in the history of our own individual lives.
I think it is appropriate to end this discussion with my favorite Dorothy Sayers quote:
“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”